Boulderdash’s Peter Liepa on Fun, Granny Caves and Polishing rough diamonds #boulderdash #gamedesign

If I compiled a list of my favourite games before I started this project Boulderdash would appear at zero. That’s a pretty dire programming joke but it’s absolutely true. No game has ever entranced me to the same degree. I still have the cassette of my Atari 800 version, actually the copy even has the cassette inlay drawn by my 12 year old self (it’s on the bookshelf behind me, I’ll dig it out). Its design simplicity is eternal but more importantly it is Fun. The frequency at which Boulderdash clones and updates appear, most recently on the DS as Boulderdash Rocks!, are proof of its endearing appeal.

[my awesome cover art, aged 12 & 3/4]

So it’s with a twinge of sadness that this is probably the last big part of talking with Peter Liepa about Boulderdash. I want to thank Peter for the astonishing amount of time and patience he’s shown me and the project. It might be obvious by now that I’m not an experienced interviewer (hard to believe I know) and his tolerance of my ‘style’ has not only been pivotal in me starting to understand the differences in game development but hugely inspiring.  Plus I got to find out some exciting news, Peter’s working on a new puzzle game but that’s as much as I can tell you at the moment. Okay, enough with the schoolboy mawkishness already. 

Back to the plot…loading…

Peter, if games are all about a “feeling” of enjoyment and fun then would it seem reasonable then to assume that you must have a sizeable iterative process loop of “play/testing/refining” your game model in order to arrive at something enjoyable? Probably the majority of your development? That is, beyond a rough spec/idea for the physical  constraints of the world, the rest of the specification is written as a result of development and not the other way around? 

That sounds about right.  Frankly, it’s not as if I had an official “process”. I was just a guy working at the metaphorical “kitchen table” trying to create a game.  I had much bigger things to worry about than process.  In fact, my experience to date had been that process wasn’t much use unless you were working with a larger team. And I am by nature an improviser.

So perhaps it would run along the lines of “my first goal is to have something that does y in a weeks time and then as a result of play testing y I actually now know that my model also needs x to support and precede y to help make more sense of its function” and this might not have been visible through spending a month writing a formal specification for it, as it’s almost impossible to feel fun through a written description, in the same way that reading a play will be nothing like the experience of going to the theatre to see it.

Sounds like a good plan.  Obviously you want to think things out as far as you can in advance, but recognize that there are diminishing returns for that.  There are lots of things that you don’t know yet, and value (as a navigational aid) will reveal itself as you go along.

As my project will also result in the agile development of a social/Mobile game, I wonder if you had thoughts on how Boulderdash would evolve if you were developing it today with the influence of Facebook and Twitter? (I guess an impossible question really, as it Boulderdash exists as a product of it’s time really) Beyond something like social hi-score tables did you ever conceive of it being multiplayer for example? Have you ever had any desire to revisit it – or games in general?

I have a vague recollection that I may have thought of multi-player Boulder Dash at one time, but as you point out it was a product of its time.  It did just fine as a one player game.

Funny you should ask about revisiting games.  From 1994 until early 2009 I worked at Alias, the company that created Maya and was acquired by Autodesk.  Since leaving that company, I’ve had the mental bandwidth to return to some of my “roots” in mathematical visualisation, generative art and gaming.  One of the projects I’ve been working on lately is a web version of my game Brain Jam, which was released as freeware in early 90’s and enjoyed some cultish popularity.  It was written back then as a learning exercise for C++ and Windows, and is being rewritten now as a way of learning web technologies.

It’s on the backburner right now, due to a contracting project, but we might be able to talk more about its process when I resume.

I guess I’m coming to the end of my questions too (sadly!), so perhaps it’s fitting then to ask about the end of the development of Boulderdash. How much time was spent on “polish” in regard to the whole development time (actually, how long was it, start to finish?) The game has always struck me as something of a labour of love as it’s so beautiful to see and hear. A good example for me is the way that the cave structure is first revealed to the player, as it flips each border tile to show dirt/boulder/firefly/diamond etc and scrolls to Rockford who finally “arrives” in the cave slightly later and gives a genuine sense of transition. 

That sense of scrolling encourages the user to explore, eagerly searching out those diamonds. Were these things that were added after the core mechanic was working, i.e. design ideas that came as a result of polishing? When did you decide it was time to stop – or did the publisher decide for you? What was your overall experience of the development and publishing relationship?

Boulder Dash took about 6 months to develop.  That would have been 2 hours of what looked like “real work” every day, along with 22 hours of what may have looked like time wasting but was probably integral to the process.  Somebody once mentioned to me that you can get an awful lot done in life with a mere hour or two a day of genuine productivity, so I guess there is hope for those of us who can’t work like machines.
As for polish, the mechanics of the game showed up within the first three days of the project.  You could argue that after that everything was polish.  I think that all good or great works of art need to be labours of love, because otherwise those with artistic temperament  wouldn’t stick around to give them all the polish and finish they need to go out into the world.  If an idea is worth spending six months on, it’s probably reasonably good.

So the effects that you describe – the revealing of the cave, the scrolling, were all part of polish and presentation.  The original
game had smaller tiles that all fit on one screen.  To make them more vivid, the tiles had to be bigger.  And once they were bigger, the game no longer fit on the screen, so scrolling was introduced.

I can’t really remember how it was that I decided the game was complete.  Something about works of art not being finished, only abandoned.  By the time I found a publisher, I only had a few sample caves.  It was easy enough to design enough caves for the whole game, once we decided what was enough.  But they specifically asked for a “granny cave”, which was their term for a cave that anybody, including your grandmother, could get through.  And they also wanted “intermissions”, which seemed to be popular in games at the time as rewards.  
So I just added some smaller puzzle caves after every four of the main caves.  I think both suggestions, especially the granny cave, enhanced the game.
Lastly, I loved reading your blog entry ( that had the music transcribed using a flash application.  How important to you was the music and soundfx? The soundfx is terrifically atmospheric and has a distinctive echoey and metallic effect (that could be my memory playing tricks on me)  Did you design the soundfx? 
I designed the music and soundfx.  They were as important to me as any other part of the game in terms of adding richness to the experience. I had some background in both music and waveform/sound synthesis, so they were a fairly natural thing for me to do, although the sound chips in those days were pretty basic.  My philosophy with music is that you take the instrument you’ve got – whether that’s a rubber band or a grand piano – and build the music around that.  So I was trying to leverage the available sound chips to making sounds that suited them.

[Transmission ends]

[My ‘backup’ of Boulderdash -not that I feel the need to justify myself but I did buy the original, I just used this one as I was archivist nut even back then]

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